L.A. County fire chief to wildland-area residents: 'Sleep with one eye open tonight'

More than 100,000 residents in the San Fernando Valley remained under evacuation Wednesday as a brush fire that started in the foothills above Sylmar continued to grow.

By late Wednesday, the fire had scorched 12,605 acres and destroyed at least 30 homes. Firefighters were bracing for heavy winds, with forecasters predicting gusts in some areas of up to 80 mph.

“It’s critically important for people that live in wildland areas that you sleep with one eye open tonight,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

“We’re expecting some extreme wind” Wednesday night, Osby said. “We’re expecting wind gusts in some areas up to 80 miles per hour.”

As crews continue to fight the blaze, some residents are beginning to assess the damage to their foothill properties.

Among the charred landscape off Little Tujunga Canyon Road in Sylmar stood what remained of Rancho Padilla, where nearly 30 horses died in the fire.

“All I could think about was the horses, the horses, the horses. And they were like, ‘Get out, get out, get out,’ ” said Patricia Padilla, whose family owns a ranch there.

“The structures can get rebuilt, but the lives of the horses can’t.... That’s my biggest heartbreak.”

The ranch, which boards horses, had more than 60 housed there, said Virginia Padilla, Patricia’s older sister. That morning, they put the count of dead horses at 29.

One of Virginia’s horses is in the hospital, and another, along with her sister’s horse, Scar, is doing fine. Still, they felt for their boarders and the horses they’d lost.

“Honestly, it feels like we lost a big part of our family,” Patricia said. “To see it all gone ... it’s heartbreaking.”

The Creek fire started about 4 a.m. Tuesday and quickly raced out of control as powerful Santa Ana winds pushed it toward houses below.

Martine Colette, founder of the Wildlife Waystation animal sanctuary, woke up at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday to the fire blazing nearby. She and her staff immediately began preparing for an evacuation, working to ensure their animals — which include lions and tigers — didn’t burn in their enclosures.

They separated the different types of caging — the ones suitable for hyenas, others for Siberian tigers, another for a chimpanzee. They had to figure out what to do about the buffalo roaming loose in the fire zone, as well as what they’d do with the small-lunged animals who wouldn’t be able to survive the smoke.

“The smoke was very thick,” Colette said. “It was very, very scary.”

The power went out, so staff worked by flashlight.

“You’re now working in the dark, and you’re working with very dangerous animals,” she said. “You’re working with lions and tigers and leopards and hyenas and mountain lions, things like that.”

By Wednesday, they were running on no sleep. Colette kept her walkie-talkie close to her while she worked as fire trucks rolled in and out of the parking lot. Smoke billowed out from the mountains nearby, sending ash floating through the air.

Some of the animals were evacuated to a zoo and others to motion picture compounds — facilities capable of dealing with these types of animals. There are about 350 to 400 animals housed at the sanctuary, and 100 stayed behind at the facility.

Early Wednesday, the fire kicked off again. “Out of nowhere, this huge inferno exploded,” Colette said.

“It felt like you were in the middle of hell with everything burning around you.”

The fire burned a portion of the property, but Colette doesn’t believe any animals have been lost.

As of Wednesday evening, the Creek blaze was 5% contained, and residents had been evacuated from an area covering more than 20 square miles. The fire jumped the 210 Freeway and burned in Shadow Hills to the south, where residents scrambled to evacuate hundreds of horses, alpacas and other animals. About 20 of the 30 homes that have burned were in Little Tujunga, Kagel and Lopez canyons, officials said.

Several exits along the 210 Freeway leading into Sylmar, Pacoima, Shadow Hills and Sunland remain closed, the California Highway Patrol said.

About 2,500 homes are still under threat, and nearly 1,700 personnel are battling the blaze.

Farther north, in Santa Clarita, firefighters were making significant gains against the Rye fire that had burned toward Magic Mountain on Tuesday afternoon. The fire briefly shut down access to the 5 Freeway from Highway 126 and triggered mandatory evacuations.

Roy DeFilippis, 69, and his wife, Yolanda, 66, had only recently arrived home from a vacation and were excited to spend a nice, relaxing afternoon at a campground west of Santa Clarita when the Rye fire started.

The couple have been on a road trip for weeks, starting out at their home in Nova Scotia and traveling to Simi Valley to spend Thanksgiving with their daughter and her family.

Driving thousands of miles, they faced several challenges. The RV broke down in Kingman, Ariz., and then again as they were traveling in California toward Simi Valley. Roy DeFilippis almost lost control going down a mountain.

On Tuesday afternoon, he was watching TV, considering whether to drink more coffee or switch to cold beer.

“And all of a sudden, we hear sirens and sirens, and police came out and told us we had to evacuate,” he said.

Walking out of their RV, the couple saw flames as tall as their motor home.

They ditched the Honda Civic they’d been hauling. There was no time.

They ensured their most precious cargo — their eight Yorkies, Spike, Zoey, Lacey, Madison, Spencer, Mickey, Sammy and Snickers — were in the RV, and they rushed onto Highway 126.

Late Wednesday morning, they were parked on a gravel lot between Santa Clarita and Fillmore, waiting until the campground was reopened at noon. They weren’t sure whether their car survived.

But DeFilippis, a retiree from Florida, said that because they were safe from the fires, it just made for a good story to tell his friends. “Life is a true adventure, isn’t it?” he said.

The Rye fire had burned 7,000 acres and was 5% contained Wednesday. All evacuations and road closures have been lifted.

After five years of drought, California was inundated with one of its wettest winters on record last year, followed by the hottest summer on record. That created a bountiful crop of light grass and vegetation that then shriveled and is now primed to burn.

The Santa Ana winds that have driven the flames are expected to subside by Friday, the National Weather Service said.

For breaking California news, follow @LANow on Twitter.

Times staff writers Alene Tchekmedyian and Joseph Serna contributed to this report.


UPDATES:

9:25 p.m.: This article was updated with new figures and an interview.

3:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details of the Rye fire.

11:55 a.m.: This article was updated with reports of animal fatalities.

This article was originally published at 11 a.m.

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